Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Apr 09, 2012 7:03 pm 
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The nicest murderer in East Texas

In the town of Carthage in East Texas, not too long ago, there was an assistant funeral director called Bernie Tiede, pronounced "Teedy" -- like "tedium" without the "um." He sang, played the organ in church, directed local theatricals, including The Music Man. He taught classes to aspiring morticians. He was wonderful with widows. He was nice to everybody and all the town of Carthage liked him, though he had little use for ladies of his own age. In fact, as some acknowledged, he was a little "light in the loafers," in short, closeted gay. Among the widows whom he befriended was Marjorie Nugent, wife of a recently deceased and very mean and rich oil man, who turned out to be even meaner than her husband. Marjorie alienated all her relatives and some of them sued her. She was nasty to everyone who worked for her. But Bernie was so nice to her she began going around with him, taking him on trips, and eventually making him reduce his work load at the funeral home and become her full-time companion, house manager, jack of all trades. Her pampered slave, and sole beneficiary.

And then she became so bossy and controlling and mean that Bernie, nice though he was, couldn't stand it any more and without intending to, quite, he killed her, shot her four times in the back, and popped her body in the freezer, to await a proper burial. Upon which he began spending more and more of her money, but always to do kindnesses around the town -- until, after nine months in the freezer, Marjorie's disappearance became too suspicious, and Bernie got caught. This is the true story Texas native Richard Linklater, collaborating with Skip Hollandsworth, the author of an article about Bernie Tiede in the Texas Montly, has endeavorred to present on film, making use of the excellent services of Jack Black as Bernie, in an unusual semi-serious role, Shirley MacLaine as the widow, and Matthew McCaughnhey as the DA who brings Bernie to justice, against the wishes of the Carthagenians, who hated the widow and loved Bernie and declared that they wanted him to go free.

Linklater tells his story partly as a lighthearted true-crime story, somewhat like a tamer, more claustrophobic verson of what Glenn Ficarra and John Requa did in I Love You Philip Morris, and partly as a choral Christopher Guest-style mocumentary, because there is much focus on the townspeople (played by twangy Texas TV actors) extolling the virtues of Bernie and telling his story. It's been commented with some justice that the mocumentary bits get in the way of Bernie's own tale. If you can forget that this is Jack Black, his scenes tell the story well enough. Though he plays it a bit too fey at times (particularly in the swishy walk) he delivers a nicely modulated performance, half droll, half real. The only thing he cannot capture, because he is too good a comic actor, is the banality of goodness. But Linklater evidently was wedded to the townsfolks' flavorful testimony, and let it flow more than necessary. It is what gets most of the film's laughs, and it's funny, and loaded with telling jokes about Texas Linklater must have been storing up all his life. One speaker in particular gets crude but irresistible laughs by deriding every part of the state but East Texas, and then describing the nearby district the trial's moved to (so the prosecution will have a chance) as nothing but trailer trash retards.

All this is done with polish. MacLaine is far more restrained than she has been in the past. The character she is playing is extreme enough not to need puffing up. Similarly, Bernie warns his mortuary pupils not to think they make a corpse look more alive by using too much makeup. Matthew McConaughey is as different from his usual roles as Black is in his, as Danny Buck Davidson, the zealous DA, who wants justice done but more than anything wants to get reelected.

But what are we to make of this movie? It presents us with a moral dilemma. Bernie gets a severe sentence. Should he not have? Is this kind of tongue in cheek treatment a fair way to deal with a real crime story? Jack Black visited the real Bernie in prison and has said, “There’s precedent for films in the past that have helped people get out, but you worry at the time you’re making the film: ‘Wait, if we don’t present the film properly, will it actually hurt his chances of getting out?’” Indeed. That's what I was wondering. And I was also wondering if a "good" murderer is even interesting. We like evil. We don't mind if it's droll, like, say, the wondferful string of murders executed by the Victorian villain Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price) in Kind Hearts and Coronet, who knocks off eight relatives, all played by Alec Guinness, in order to gain the title of first Duke of D'Ascoyne. Mazzini's certainly wicked, but his crimes are great fun, because he's self-serving in such a dashing, Macchiavellian way. One wishes Bernie had taken pleasure in doing away with the insufferable Marjorie Nugent -- or at least, as various townspeople opine, he had done the job right, with care and premeditation, so he'd gotten away with it.

Linklater and his coauthor tell their true story in their own homely, humorous Texas style. It's very effective in its way. And it's more or less true, and doubtless some will love it. But it's curiously unsatisfying and too uncritical and lacking in nuance in its treatment of Bernie and his relationship with Marjorie.

Bernie was shown in June 2011 at the LA Film Festival, and also at Rio and London. It had a Texas premiere at SXSW in Austin March 14, 2012, and debuted in NYC as part of Tribeca April 23. Screened for this review in San Francisco, it was included in the San Francisco International Film Festival, where it was shown April 21. It goes into limited US release April 27, and expands May 4.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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